“It’s almost like he wanted to collect every map ever made”

Alec Earnest recently made an interesting documentary about a house in Los Angeles whose owner died, leaving behind a personal map collection so massive that, upon being acquisitioned by the city’s public library, “it doubled the LAPL’s collection in a single day.”

When LAPL map librarian Glen Creason, interviewed for the film, first entered the house, his jaw dropped; “everywhere I looked in the house, there’s maps,” he explains in the film, including an entire floor that was “absolutely wall to wall with street guides.”

[Image: From Living History: The John Feathers Map Collection by Alec Earnest].

As the Los Angeles Times described Feathers’s house upon its discovery back in 2012, it held “tens of thousands of maps. Fold-out street maps were stuffed in file cabinets, crammed into cardboard boxes, lined up on closet shelves and jammed into old dairy crates. Wall-size roll-up maps once familiar to schoolchildren were stacked in corners. Old globes were lined in rows atop bookshelves also filled with maps and atlases.”

It went on and on and on: “A giant plastic topographical map of the United States covered a bathroom wall and bookcases displaying Thomas Bros. map books and other street guides lined a small den.”

Urban atlases, motoring charts, pre-Thomas Guide local street maps—Feathers collected seemingly any cartographic ephemera he could get his hands on.

[Image: From Living History: The John Feathers Map Collection by Alec Earnest].

Earnest’s short film has more information about Feathers himself, and can seen in full either above or over on YouTube.

Although the story of the collection would lend itself well to longer journalistic exploration—and map librarian Glen Creason has actually written up some thoughts for Los Angeles Magazine—it feels like an amazing jumping off point for a piece of fiction, either cinematic or literary.

Perhaps some sort of Chinatown or True Detective-like property speculation noir, where parcels of land and off-books deals are being tracked by a lone collector through generations of local maps, marking boundaries, street names, omissions; or perhaps something more like “X Marks the Spot,” where an old Spanish-affiliated property from the pre-Los Angeles era is rumored to have once had vast brick vaults stocked high with gold, buried beneath the main ranch house, a property long since absorbed into the supergrid of Greater Los Angeles… but the vaults are still down there—along with the gold—if only you can dig up the right map to go find it.

[Image: From Living History: The John Feathers Map Collection by Alec Earnest].

In fact, there could be a whole genre based purely on the unexpected narrative side-effects of people attempting—and failing—to map Los Angeles.

From Guns, Bridges

[Image: An otherwise unrelated shot of rebar used in road construction; via Wikipedia].

A quick news item from last month seems worth mentioning: “approximately 3,400 confiscated firearms” are being melted down and turned into rebar to be used for bridge and highway construction projects throughout the American Southwest.

As Global Construction Review reported, “The weapons will be melted into steel reinforcing bar, better known as ‘rebar,’ and transformed into elements of construction for upgrades in freeways and bridges in Arizona, California and Nevada.”

The event where this occurs is known as the “annual gun-melt,” and its future byproducts will be coming soon to a highway crossing near you: former armaments, from swords to plowshares, embedded in our everyday landscape.

The Town That Creep Built

[Image: A curb in Hayward reveals how much the ground is drifting due to “fault creep”: the red-painted part is slowly, but relentlessly, moving north. Photo by Geoff Manaugh].

South of San Francisco, a whole town is being deformed by plate tectonics. These are the slow but relentless landscape effects known as “fault creep.”

An earlier version of this post was first published on The Daily Beast.

The signs that something’s not right aren’t immediately obvious, but, once you see them, they’re hard to tune out.

Curbs at nearly the exact same spot on opposite sides of the street are popped out of alignment. Houses too young to show this level of wear stand oddly warped, torqued out of synch with their own foundations, their once strong frames off-kilter. The double yellow lines guiding traffic down a busy street suddenly bulge northward—as if the printing crew came to work drunk that day—before snapping back to their proper place a few feet later.

This is Hollister, California, a town being broken in two slowly, relentlessly, and in real time by an effect known as “fault creep.” A surreal tide of deformation has appeared throughout the city.

[Image: “Fault creep” bends the curbs in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

As if its grid of streets and single-family homes was actually built on an ice floe, the entire west half of Hollister is moving north along the Calaveras Fault, leaving its eastern streets behind.

In some cases, doors no longer fully close and many windows now open only at the risk of getting stuck (some no longer really close at all).

Walking through the center of town near Dunne Park offers keen observers a hidden funfair of skewed geometry.

[Image: 359 Locust Avenue, Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

For example, go to the house at 359 Locust Avenue.

The house itself stands on a different side of the Calaveras Fault than its own front walkway. As if trapped on a slow conveyor built sliding beneath the street, the walk is being pulled inexorably north, with the effect that the path is now nearly two feet off-center from the porch it still (for the time being) leads to.

[Image: The walkway is slowly creeping north, no longer centered with the house it leads to; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In another generation, if it’s not fixed, this front path will be utterly useless, leading visitors straight into a pillar.

Or walk past the cute Victorian on 5th Street. Strangely askew, it seems frozen at the start of an unexpected metamorphosis.

[Image: Photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Geometrically, it’s a cube being forced to become a rhomboid by the movements of the fault it was unknowingly built upon, an architectural dervish interrupted before it could complete its first whirl.

Now look down at your feet at the ridged crack spreading through the asphalt behind you, perfectly aligned with the broken curbs and twisted homes on either side.

This is the actual Calaveras Fault, a slow shockwave of distortion forcing its way through town, bringing architectural mutation along with it.

[Images: The Calaveras Fault pushes its way through Hollister; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

The ceaseless geometric tumult roiling just beneath the surface of Hollister brings to mind the New Orleans of John McPhee, as described in his legendary piece for The New Yorker, “Atchafalaya.”

There, too, the ground is active and constantly shifting—only, in New Orleans, it’s not north or south. It’s up or down. The ground, McPhee explains, is subsiding.

“Many houses are built on slabs that firmly rest on pilings,” he writes. “As the turf around a house gradually subsides, the slab seems to rise.” This leads to the surreal appearance of carnivalesque spatial side-effects, with houses entirely detached from their own front porches and stairways now leading to nowhere:

Where the driveway was once flush with the floor of the carport, a bump appears. The front walk sags like a hammock. The sidewalk sags. The bump up to the carport, growing, becomes high enough to knock the front wheels out of alignment. Sakrete appears, like putty beside a windowpane, to ease the bump. The property sinks another foot. The house stays where it is, on its slab and pilings. A ramp is built to get the car into the carport. The ramp rises three feet. But the yard, before long, has subsided four. The carport becomes a porch, with hanging plants and steep wooden steps. A carport that is not firmly anchored may dangle from the side of a house like a third of a drop-leaf table. Under the house, daylight appears. You can see under the slab and out the other side. More landfill or more concrete is packed around the edges to hide the ugly scene.

Like McPhee’s New Orleans, Hollister is an inhabitable catalog of misalignment and disorientation, bulging, bending, and blistering as it splits right down the middle.

And there’s more. Stop at the north end of 6th Street, for example, just across from Dunne Park, and look back at the half-collapsed retaining wall hanging on for dear life in front of number 558.

It looks like someone once backed a truck into it—but it’s just evidence of plate tectonics, the ground bulging northward without regard for bricks or concrete.

[Images: A fault-buckled wall and sidewalk bearing traces of planetary forces below; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

In fact, follow this north on Google Maps and you’ll find a clean line connecting this broken wall to the jagged rupture crossing the street in the photographs above, to the paper-thin fault dividing the house from its own front walk on Locust Avenue.

So what’s happening to Hollister?

“Fault creep” is a condition that results when the underlying geology is too soft to get stuck or to accumulate tectonic stress: in other words, the deep rocks beneath Hollister are slippery, more pliable, and behave a bit like talc. Wonderfully but unsurprisingly, the mechanism used to study creep is called a creepmeter.

The ground sort of oozes past itself, in other words, a slow-motion landslide at a pace that would be all but imperceptible if it weren’t for the gridded streets and property lines being bent out of shape above it.

[Image: A curb and street drain popped far out of alignment in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In a sense, Hollister is an urban-scale device for tracking tectonic deformation: attach rulers to its porches and curbs, and you could even take measurements.

The good news is that the large and damaging earthquakes otherwise associated with fault movement—when the ground suddenly breaks free every hundred years or so in a catastrophic surge—are not nearly as common here.

Instead, half a town can move north by more than an inch every five years and all that most residents will ever feel is an occasional flutter.

[Images: Crossing onto the Pacific Plate (heading west) in Parkfield; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

I spoke with Andy Snyder from the U.S. Geological Survey about the phenomenon.

Snyder works on an experiment known as the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth, or SAFOD, which has actually drilled down through the San Andreas Fault to monitor what’s really happening down there, studying the landscape from below through sensitive probes installed deep in the active scar tissue between tectonic plates.

On Snyder’s advice, I made my way out to one of the greatest but most thoroughly mundane monuments to fault creep in the state of California. This was in Parkfield, a remote town with a stated population of 18 where Snyder and SAFOD are both based, and where fault creep is particularly active.

In Parkfield there is a remarkable road bridge: a steel structure that has been anchored to either side of the San Andreas Fault like a giant, doomed staple. Anyone who crosses it in either direction is welcomed onto a new tectonic plate by friendly road signs—but the bridge itself is curiously bent, warped like a bow as its western anchorage moves north toward San Francisco.

It distorts more and more every day of the month, every year, due to the slow effects of fault creep. Built straight, it is already becoming a graceful curve.

[Image: Looking east at the North American Plate in Parkfield; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

Parkfield is also approximately where fault creep begins in the state, Snyder explained, marking the southern edge of a zone of tectonic mobility that extends up roughly to Hollister and then begins again on a brief stretch of the Hayward Fault in the East Bay.

Indeed, another suggestion of Snyder’s was that I go up to visit a very specific corner in the city of Hayward, where the curb at the intersection of Rose and Prospect Streets has long since been shifted out of alignment.

Over the past decade—most recently, in 2011—someone has actually been drawing little black arrows on the concrete to help visualize how far the city has drifted in that time.

The result is something like an alternative orientation point for the city, a kind of seismic meridian—or perhaps doomsday clock—by which Hayward’s ceaseless cleaving can be measured.

[Images: A moving curb becomes an inadvertent compass for measuring seismic energy in Hayward; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

Attempting to visualize earthquakes on a thousand-year time span, or to imagine the pure abstraction of seismic energy, can be rather daunting; this makes it all the more surprising to realize that even the tiniest details hidden in plain sight, such as cracks in the sidewalk, black sharpie marks on curbs, or lazily tilting front porches, can actually be real-time evidence that California is on the move.

But it is exactly these types of signs that function as minor landmarks for the seismic tourist—and, for all their near-invisibility, visiting them can still provide a mind-altering experience.

Back in Hollister, Snyder warned, many of these already easily missed signs through which fault creep is made visible are becoming more and more hard to find.

The town is rapidly gentrifying, he pointed out, and Hollister’s population is beginning to grow as its quiet and leafy streets fill up with commuters who can no longer afford to live closer to Silicon Valley or the Bay. This means that the city’s residents are now just a bit faster to repair things, just a bit quicker to tear down structurally unsound houses.

One of the most famous examples of fault creep, for example—a twisted and misshapen home formerly leaning every which way at a bend in Locust Avenue—is gone. But whatever replaces it will face the same fate.

After all, the creep is still there, like a poltergeist disfiguring things from below, a malign spirit struggling to make itself visible.

Beneath the painted eaves and the wheels of new BMWs, the landscape is still on the move; the deformation is just well hidden, a denied monstrosity reappearing millimeter by millimeter despite the quick satisfaction of weekend repair jobs. Tumid and unstoppable, there is little that new wallpaper or re-poured driveways can do to disguise it.

[Image: Haphazard concrete patchwork in a formerly straight sidewalk betrays the slow action of fault creep; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Snyder remembered one more site in Hollister that he urged me to visit on my way out of town.

In the very center of Hollister’s Dunne Park, a nice and gentle swale “like a chaise longue,” in his words, has been developing.

Expecting to find just a small bump running through the park, I was instead surprised to see that there is actually a rather large grassy knoll forming there, a rolling and bucolic hill that few people would otherwise realize is an active tectonic fault.

[Image: A fault-caused grassy knoll rises in the center of Dunne Park in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In fact, he said, residents have been entirely unperturbed by this mysterious appearance of a brand new landform in the middle of their city, seeing it instead as an opportunity for better sunbathing. Fault creep is not without its benefits, he joked.

Snyder laughed as he described the sight of a dozen people and their beach towels, all angling themselves upward toward the sun, getting tan in a mobile city with the help of plate tectonics.

[Note: An earlier version of this piece was first published on The Daily Beast (where I did not choose the original headline). I owe a huge thanks to Andy Snyder for the phone conversation in which we discussed fault creep; and the book Finding Fault in California: An Earthquake Tourist’s Guide by Susan Elizabeth Hough was also extremely useful. Finally, please also note that, if you do go to Hollister or Hayward to photograph these sites, be mindful of the people who actually live there, as they do not necessarily want crowds of strangers gathering outside their homes].

The Moving Mountain, or Terrain as Spectacle

[Image: Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA, via KCET].

Nathan Masters remains one of the more interesting chroniclers of life and landscape in Southern California, as evidenced by his “L.A. as Subject” blog for KCET. I could (and should) just link to all his posts, to be honest—lost hills! buried rivers! conflicting grids!—but last week’s installment, albeit short, was particularly interesting.

“For a few days in late November 1937,” Masters writes, “it was the Southland’s greatest attraction—a landslide in slow motion, 1.5 million tons of an Elysian Park hillside creeping toward the Los Angeles River bed.”

Sensational news reports, printed in papers and broadcast on radio nationwide, described it as a “moving mountain,” and tourists came from afar to witness the geologic curiosity. One Oklahoma City police officer took a leave of absence to watch the slide. Two boys hopped freight trains from New York to see it. Some 10,000 sightseers came by the hour. Spectators pressed against police barricades along Riverside Drive, and enterprising vendors worked the throng like a baseball game, hawking peanuts, popcorn, and soda. Some even sold field glasses.

Even local astronomers showed up, telescopes in tow, in order to study the mobile mass, this blob of geology suddenly making a move into town.

After a catastrophic lurching of the slow-motion mountain, the terrain appeared to come to a standstill. “The next day, an estimated crowd of 500,000 converged on the site, munching on popcorn and hoping the mountain would move again.”

This pent-up dramaturgy of the landscape—the possibility that its newfound agency would continue—crawling, oozing, rolling, forcing its way into public consciousness—remains strong today, even if subsumed into other contexts.

In other words, I’d suggest that many Angelenos are still, in a sense, “munching on popcorn and hoping the [landscape] would move again,” and that this is the dark fascination of seismic instability, of what it means to live in an earthquake zone: that the land itself is active, motivated from within by a kind of a slow-motion sentience, a mineral energy that is as much an invigorating spectacle as it is an existential threat.

Read the rest of Masters’s post over at “L.A. as Subject.”

The Snow Mine

[Image: The “Blythe Intaglios,” via Google Maps].

After reading an article about the “Blythe geoglyphs”—huge, 1,000-year old images carved into the California desert north of Blythe, near the border with Arizona—I got to looking around on Google Maps more or less at random and found what looked like a ghost town in the middle of nowhere, close to an old mine.

Turns out, it was the abandoned industrial settlement of Midland, California—and it’s been empty for nearly half a century, deliberately burned to the ground in 1966 when the nearby mine was closed.

[Image: Midland, California, via Google Maps].

What’s so interesting about this place—aside from the exposed concrete foundation pads now reused as platforms for RVs, or the empty streets forming an altogether different kind of geoglyph, or even the obvious ease with which one can get there, simply following the aptly named Midland Road northeast from Blythe—is the fact that the town was built for workers at the gypsum mine, and that the gypsum extracted from the ground in Midland was then used as artificial snow in many Hollywood productions.

[Image: Midland, California, via Google Maps].

As the L.A. Times reported back in 1970—warning its readers, “Don’t Go To Midland—It’s Gone”—the town served as the mineral origin for Hollywood’s simulated weather effects.

“Midland was started in 1925 as a tent city,” the paper explained, “with miners in the middle of the Mojave Desert digging gypsum out of the Little Marias to meet the demands of movie studios. All the winter scenes during the golden age of Hollywood were filmed with ‘snowflakes’ from Midland.”

[Image: The abandoned streets of Midland, former origin of Hollywood’s artificial snow; photo via CLUI].

Like some strange, artificial winter being mined from the earth and scattered all over the dreams of cinemagoers around the world, Midland’s mineral snow had all the right qualities without any of the perishability or cold.

See, for example, this patent for artificial snow, filed in 1927 and approved in 1930, in which it is explained how gypsum can be dissolved by a specific acid mix to produce light, fluffy flakes perfect for the purposes of winter simulation. Easy to produce, with no risk of melting.

[Image: Midland, California, via Google Maps].

I’ve long been fascinated by the artificial snow industry—the notion of an industrially controlled climate-on-demand, spraying out snowflakes as if from a 3D printer, is just amazing to me—as well as with the unearthly world of mines, caves, and all things underground, but I had not really ever imagined that these interests might somehow come together someday, wherein fake glaciers and peaceful drifts of pure white snow were actually something scraped out of the planet by the extraction industry.

As if suggesting the plot of a deranged, Dr. Seussian children’s book, the idea that winter is something we pull from a mine in the middle of the California desert and then scatter over the warm Mediterranean cities of the coast is perhaps all the evidence you need that life is always already more dreamlike than you had previously believed possible.

(Very vaguely related: See also BLDGBLOG’s earlier coverage of California City).

A Building For Measuring Borders

The so-called “Yolo Buggy” was not a 19th-century adventure tourism vehicle for those of us who only live once; it was a mobile building, field shelter, and geopolitical laboratory for measuring the borders of an American county. Yolo County, California.

The “moveable tent or ‘Yolo Buggy,'” as the libraries at UC Berkeley describe it, helped teams of state surveyors perform acts of measurement across the landscape in order to mathematically understand—and, thus, to tax, police, and regulate—the western terrain of the United States. It was a kind of Borgesian parade, a carnival of instruments on the move.

The resulting “Yolo Baseline” and the geometries that emerged from it allowed these teams to establish a constant point of cartographic reference for future mapping expeditions and charts. In effect, it was an invisible line across the landscape that they tried to make governmentally real by leaving small markers in their wake. (Read more about meridians and baselines over at the Center for Land Use Interpretation).

In the process, these teams carried architecture along with them in the form of the “moveable tent” seen here—which was simultaneously a room in which they could stay out of the sun and a pop-up work station for making sense of the earth’s surface—and the related tower visible in the opening image.

That control tower allowed the teams’ literal supervisors to look back at where they’d come from and to scan much further ahead, at whatever future calculations of the grid they might be able to map in the days to come. You could say that it was mobile optical infrastructure for gaining administrative control of new land.

Like a dust-covered Tron of the desert, surrounded by the invisible mathematics of a grid that had yet to be realized, these over-dressed gentlemen of another century helped give rise to an abstract model of the state. Their comparatively minor work thus contributed to a virtual database of points and coordinates, something immaterial and totally out of scale with the bruised shins and splintered fingers associated with moving this wooden behemoth across the California hills.

(All images courtesy UC Berkeley/Calisphere).

The Planetary Super-Surface of San Bernardino County

A surprisingly interesting business article in the Los Angeles Times this past weekend pointed out that an “industrial real estate boom” is underway east of the city: “Nestled on the windy plains at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains,” we read, “once austere stretches of agricultural land have morphed into the country’s most desirable industrial real estate market, and it is growing faster than any other industrial region in the U.S.”

[Image: Construction work at a future Amazon.com warehouse in San Bernardino, courtesy of NBC Southern California].

What’s at stake? Eager buyers are snapping up “vast warehouses—some are bigger than 30 football fields under one roof—where they can store, process and ship merchandise such as clothes, books and toys to ever more online shoppers and handle the rising flood of goods passing through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.”

It’s a logistics rush “so intense” that “developers are erecting more than 16 million square feet of warehouses on speculation, meaning they are gambling that buyers or renters will rush forward to claim the buildings by the time they are complete.”

As it happens, though, huge volumes of empty space framed by walls and ceilings are something of the ultimate testing ground for robot intelligence: “Once upon a time, a warehouse was where you stored things for weeks or months, such as toys and canned food that retailers would grab to restock their shelves. Sorting, organizing and moving the inventory was a constant challenge.”

However, now, in this age of empty architectural airspace, “Tracking goods in the modern age of bar codes, scanners and computers is a comparative breeze. The location of every widget can be identified with pinpoint accuracy and fetched by robots that can lift and carry 3,000-pound loads with ease.”

[Image: An unrelated warehouse photo from CCI Flooring].

I’m reminded of something novelist Zachary Mason said in an interview with BLDGBLOG three years ago. Mason, who has also worked in the field of artificial intelligence, pointed out the spatial problems faced by any truly emergent A.I.:

One of the problems with A.I. is that interacting with the world is really tough. Both sensing the world and manipulating it via robotics are very hard problems, and solved only for highly stripped-down special cases. Unmanned aerial vehicles, for instance, work well, because maneuvering in a big, empty, three-dimensional void is easy—your GPS tells you exactly where you are, and there’s nothing to bump into except the odd migratory bird. Walking across across a desert, though, or, heaven help us, negotiating one’s way through a room full of furniture in changing lighting conditions, is vastly more difficult.

The prospect of Artificial Intelligence finding its way into the world not by way of unmanned aerial vehicles flying in Mason’s “big, empty, three-dimensional void” but, instead, in the vast and echoing elsewhere of speculative warehouse space built in the desert outside Los Angeles is an incredible, and even somewhat frightening, thing to contemplate.

However, I started this post actually hoping to point out one small thing mentioned merely in passing at the end of the L.A. Times article.

One of these warehouses, it turns out, is actually so huge it must be laser-leveled against the curvature of the earth.

[Image: A laser-leveling target used for calibrating car scales, taken by someone named “Butt Dyno,” via an evolutionm.net forum].

The building in question “has 32-foot ceilings and enough doors to load or unload 124 trucks at the same time,” presenting insane combinatorial possibilities that would make the bridges of Königsberg blush; but, even more unbelievably, this “480,000-square-foot facility recently built for Quaker Oats Co. on land that used to be part of Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino… is so long at 1,000 feet that contractors laying the concrete floor used lasers to gently follow the curve of the Earth and keep the floor level.”

Of course, this means that you could also work in reverse, and thus deduce, from the precise leveling of the warehouse floor, the curvature of the planet it rests on, which, bizarrely enough, makes studying this building—an empty warehouse in the California desert—an unexpected subset of astronomical calculation.

Last week, for instance, we looked at various “benchmarks” that have been used for measuring the circumference of the Earth, but perhaps future generations will simply drive out to a cluster of warehouses somewhere on the fringes of Los Angeles—next century’s Stonehenge, a new Solomon’s Temple, or Superstudio meets Eratosthenes—ritually laser-level the floor on a hot summer afternoon, and thus deduce the limits of our world itself, all by way of the most “fundamental” of architectural interventions: the floor.



The logistical super-surface as planetary analogue.

San Andreas: Architecture for the Fault

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, from San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake, Quake City (1995)].

I thought I’d upload the course description for a studio I’ll be teaching this spring—starting next week, in fact—at Columbia University’s GSAPP on the architectural implications of seismic energy and the possibility of a San Andreas Fault National Park in California. The images in this post are just pages from the syllabus.

The overall idea is to look at architecture’s capacity for giving form to—or, in terms of the course description, its capacity to “make legible”—seismic energy as experienced along the San Andreas Fault. As the syllabus explains, we’ll achieve this, first, through the design and modeling of a series of architectural “devices”—not scientific instruments, but interpretive tools—that can interact with, spatially mediate, and/or augment the fault line, making the tectonic forces of the earth visible, audible, or otherwise sensible for a visiting public. From pendulums to prepared pianos, seismographs to shake tables, this invention and exploration of new mechanisms for the fault will fill the course’s opening three weeks.

The larger and more important impetus of the studio, however, is to look at the San Andreas Fault as a possible site for a future National Park, including all that this might entail, from questions of seismic risk and what it means to invite visitors into a place of terrestrial instability to the impossibility of preserving a landscape on the move. What might a San Andreas Fault National Park look like, we will ask, how could such a park best be managed, what architecture and infrastructure—from a visitors’ center to hiking way stations—would be appropriate for such a dynamic site, and, in the end, what does it mean to enshrine seismic movement as part of the historical narrative of the United States, suggesting that a fault line can be worthy of National Park status?

I’m also excited to say that we’ll be working in collaboration with Marc Weidenbaum’s Disquiet Junto, an online music collective who will be developing projects over the course of the spring that explore the sonic properties of the San Andreas Fault—a kind of soundtrack for the San Andreas. The results of these experiments will be uploaded to Soundcloud.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, from San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake, Quake City (1995) and an aerial view of the San Andreas Fault, looking south across the Carrizo Plain at approximately +35° 6′ 49.81″, -119° 38′ 40.98″].

Course: Columbia University GSAPP Advanced Studio IV, Spring 2013
Title: San Andreas: Architecture for the Fault
Instructor: Geoff Manaugh

The San Andreas Fault is a roughly 800-mile tectonic feature cutting diagonally across the state of California, from the coastal spit of Cape Mendocino, 200 miles north of San Francisco, to the desert shores of the Salton Sea near the U.S./Mexico border. Described by geologists as a “transform fault,” the San Andreas marks a stark and exposed division between the North American and Pacific Plates. It is a landscape on the move—“one of the least stable parts of the Earth,” in the words of paleontologist Richard Fortey, writing in his excellent book Earth: An Intimate History, and “one of several faults that make up a complex of potential catastrophes.”

Seismologists estimate that, in just one million years’ time, the two opposing sides of the fault will have slid past one another to the extent of physically sealing closed the entrance to San Francisco Bay; at the other end of the state, Los Angeles will have been dragged more than 15 miles north of its present position. But then another million years will pass—and another, and another—violently and unrecognizably distorting Californian geography, with the San Andreas as a permanent, sliding scar.

In some places today, the fault is a picturesque landscape of rolling hills and ridges; in others, it is a broad valley, marked by quiet streams, ponds, and reservoirs; in yet others, it is not visible at all, hidden beneath the rocks and vegetation. In a sense, the San Andreas is not singular and it has no clear identity of its own, taking on the character of what it passes through whilst influencing the ways in which that land is used. The fault cuts through heavily urbanized areas—splitting the San Francisco peninsula in two—as well as through the suburbs. It cleaves through mountains and farms, ranches and rail yards. As the National Park Service reminds us, “Although the very mention of the San Andreas Fault instills concerns about great earthquakes, perhaps less thought is given to the glorious and scenic landscapes the fault has been responsible for creating.”

[Images: (left) A “fault trench” cut along the San Andreas for studying underground seismic strain; photo by Ricardo DeAratanha for the Los Angeles Times. (right) A property fence “offset” nearly eight feet by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; a similar fence is now part of an “Earthquake Trail” interpretive loop “that provides visitors with information on the unique geological forces that shape Point Reyes and Northern California.” “Interpretive displays dot the trail,” according to the blog Weekend Sherpa, “describing the dynamic geology of the area. The highlight is a wooden fence split and moved 20 feet by the great quake of 1906.” Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

This is not a class about seismic engineering, however, nor is it a rigorous look at how architects might stabilize buildings in an earthquake zone. Rather, it is a class about making the seismic energies of the San Andreas Fault legible through architecture. That is, making otherwise imperceptible planetary forces—the tectonic actions of the Earth itself—physically and spatially sensible. Our goal is to make the seismic energy of the fault experientially present in the lives of the public, framing and interpreting its extraordinary geology by means of a new National Park: a San Andreas Fault National Park.

For generations, the fault has inspired equal parts scientific fascination and pop-cultural fear, seen—rightly or not—as the inevitable source of the “Big One,” an impending super-earthquake that will devastate California, flattening San Francisco and felling bridges, houses, and roads throughout greater Los Angeles.

From the 1985 James Bond film, A View to a Kill, in which the San Andreas Fault is weaponized by an eccentric billionaire, to the so-called Parkfield Experiment, “a comprehensive, long-term earthquake research project on the San Andreas fault” run by the U.S. Geological Survey to “capture” an earthquake, the fault pops up in—and has influence on—extremely diverse contexts: literary, poetic, scientific, photographic, and, as we will explore in this studio, architectural.

Indeed, the fault—and the earthquake it promises to unleash—is even psychologically present for the state’s residents in ways that are only vaguely understood. As critic David L. Ulin suggests in his book The Myth of Solid Ground, on the promises and impossibilities of earthquake prediction, the constant threat of potentially fatal seismic activity has become “part of the subterranean mythos of people’s lives” in California, inspiring a near-religious or mystical obsession with “finding order in disorder, of taking the random pandemonium of an earthquake and reconfiguring it to make unexpected sense.”

For this class, each student must make a different kind of unexpected (spatial) sense of the San Andreas Fault by proposing a San Andreas Fault National Park: a speculative complex of land forms, visitors’ centers, exhibition spaces, hiking paths, local transportation infrastructure, and more, critically rethinking what a National Park—both a preserved landscape, no matter how mobile or dynamic it might be, and its related architecture, from campsites to trail signage—is able to achieve.

Important questions here relate back to seismic safety and the limits of the National Park experience. While, as we will see, there is a jigsaw puzzle of literally hundreds of minor faults straining beneath the cities, towns, suburbs, ranches, vineyards, farms, and parks of coastal California—and much of the state’s water infrastructure, in fact, crosses the San Andreas Fault—there are entirely real concerns about inviting visitors into a site of inevitable and possibly massive seismic disturbance.

For instance, what does it mean to frame a dangerously unstable landscape as a place of aesthetic reflection, natural refuge, or outdoor recreation, and what are the risks in doing so? Alternatively, might we discover a whole new type of National Park in our designs, one that is neither reflective nor a refuge—perhaps something more like a San Andreas Fault National Laboratory, a managed landscape of sustained scientific research, not personal recreation? Further, how can a park such as this most clearly and effectively live up to the promise of being National, thus demonstrating that seismic activity has played an influential role in the shared national history of the United States?

Meanwhile, each student’s San Andreas Fault National Park proposal must include a Seismic Interpretive Center: an educational facility within which seismic activity will be studied, demonstrated, explained, or even architecturally performed and replicated. The resulting Seismic Interpretive Center will take as one of its central challenges how to communicate the science, risk, history, and future of seismic activity to both the visiting public and to resident scientists or park rangers.

Finally, the San Andreas Fault National Park must, of course, be located on the fault itself, at a site (or sites) carefully chosen by each student; however, the Seismic Interpretive Center could remain physically distant from the fault, although still within park boundaries, thus reflecting its role as a mediator between visitors and the landscape they are on the verge of entering.

[Images: (left) John Braund, Cartographer for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, March 1939, demonstrates a “new process expected to revolutionize map making… showing all the details of topography in a form true to nature.” His machine chisels topographic details using “a specially-designed electric hammer.” What new mapping devices might be possible for the San Andreas Fault, for a landscape unpredictably on the move? (right top) From Piano Tuning by J. Cree Fischer (1907). (right bottom) Bernard Tschumi, Parc de la Villette, Paris (1989). Can—or how do—we extract a site-logic from the San Andreas Fault itself?].

The first design challenge of the semester, due Monday, February 18, will be a set of architectural instruments for the San Andreas Fault. These “instruments” should be thought of as architectural devices for registering, displaying, amplifying, dampening, resonating in tune with, or otherwise studying seismic energy in the San Andreas Fault zone.

These devices should serve as seismic translators, we might say, or terrestrial interfaces: instructional devices that inhabit the metaphorically rich space between human beings and the volatile surface of the planet they stand on. Importantly, though, students should not expect these mechanisms to function as realistic scientific tools; rather, this initial project should be approached as the design of experimental architectural objects for communicating and/or making sensible the seismic complexities of an unstable landscape, interpreting an Earth always on the verge of violent transformation.

Students should begin working through a series of drawings and desktop models, developing ideas for the devices, follies, and instruments in question; one of these devices or instruments should then be chosen for physical modeling in detail, including accurate functioning of parts. This model should then be photographed for presentation at the midterm review, though the resulting photographs can be embellished and labeled as display boards. Each student must also write a short explanatory text for the instrument (no longer than 150 words).

Finally, all of this material should be saved for later documentation in a black & white pamphlet to be made available at the GSAPP End-of-Year Show.

For precedents and inspiration, we will look at, among other things, the work of Shin Egashira and David Greene, whose 1997 booklet Alternative Guide to the Isle of Portland will serve as a kind of project sourcebook; the U.S. Geological Survey’s Parkfield Experiment, in particular the Parkfield Interventional EQ Fieldwork (PIEQF) by artist D.V. Rogers; the “prepared” or “adapted” instruments and other musical inventions of avant-garde composers such as John Cage and Harry Partch; Bernard Tschumi’s fragmented half-buildings and other grid-based follies for the Parc de la Villette in Paris (recast, in our context, as an organizational collision between designed objects and the illogic of the fault they augment); and the speculative machines catalogued by architect C.J. Lim in his book Devices: A Manual of Architectural + Spatial Machines.

[Images: From Shin Egashira & David Greene, Alternative Guide to the Isle of Portland (1997)].

As Lim points out, devices share “a long and complex history with architecture.” He adds that “the machines of Vitruvius and Leonardo da Vinci,” among others, can be seen as functional compressions of architectural space, connecting large-scale building design to the precise engineering of intricate machinery. Lim’s highly imaginative examples range from Victorian-era phantasmagoria and early perspectival drawing instruments to navigation tools, wearable toolkits, and even sensors for detecting lost rivers in underground London.

[Images: From Shin Egashira & David Greene, Alternative Guide to the Isle of Portland (1997)].

One question for us here will also be in reference to scale: how large does a “device” have to be before it becomes a “building”—or a landscape, or a city—and how can architects work effectively across these extremes of space (from a portable gadget to an inhabitable building to a landscape park to a continent) and extremes of time (from the real-time motion of a mechanism to the imperceptible million-year grind of plate tectonics)?

[Images: D.V. Rogers, Parkfield Interventional EQ Fieldwork (PIEQF), 2008. According to Rogers, PIEQF was “a geologically interactive, seismic machine earthwork temporarily installed in the remote township of Parkfield, Central California, USA. During ninety-one days of intervention, between the 18th [of] August and 16th [of] November 2008, the installation reflected 4000-4500 Californian seismic events. PIEQF interfaced with the US Geological Survey seismic monitoring network and was triggered by near real-time reported earthquake waves from magnitude (M) 0.1 and above… Surrounding the earthquake shake table and buried within the excavation at north, south, east, and west co-ordinate points, an array of vertical motion sensors were installed. These sensors (Geophones) were excited when walked over or jumped upon, causing the shake table to become mechanically active. Visitors to PIEQF engaged interactively with the installation becoming seismic events themselves when interacting with these sensors.”].

Our own devices will be performative, interactive, interpretive, and instrumental. They will amplify, distribute, reproduce, offset, counterbalance, prolong, delay, hasten, measure, survey, direct, deform, induce, or spectacularize even the most imperceptible seismic events.

[Images: Daniel Libeskind, Writing Machine (1980s). As Lebbeus Woods has written, describing Libeskind’s work: “Elaborately constructed and enigmatic in purpose, Libeskind’s machines are striking and sumptuous manifestations of ideas that were, at the time he made them, of obsessive interest to academics, critics, and avant-gardists in architecture and out. Principal among these was the idea that architecture must be read, that is, understood, in the same way as a written text.” In terms of our studio, what would a machine be that could “read,” “write,” or “translate” the San Andreas Fault?].

Again, these “instruments” should not be approached as realistic scientific tools, but rather as poetic, spatial augmentations of the San Andreas Fault. Students are being asked to use the problem-solving techniques of architectural design to imagine hypothetical devices at a variety of scales that will translate this unique site—a fault line between tectonic plates and an elastic zone of origin for millions of years of future terrain deformation—into a new kind of spatial and intellectual experience for those who encounter it.

[Images: Harry Partch, various stringed, percussive, and resonating instruments (1940s/1950s)].

Upon completing these devices, the second, most important, and largest project of the semester, due Wednesday, April 17, will be the San Andreas Fault National Park proposal and its associated Seismic Interpretive Center.

The Seismic Interpretive Center should be an educational facility, equivalent to 30,000 square feet. Here, seismic activity will be studied, demonstrated, interpreted, and otherwise explained to the visiting public and to a seasonal crew of scientist-researchers who use the facility in their work. It might be useful to think of the Seismic Interpretive Center as a direct outgrowth of the instruments developed in the previous project, either by housing or emulating those devices. In other words, the Center could passively display seismic instruments for public use but simultaneously operate as an active, building-scale mechanism for engaging with or tectonically explaining the San Andreas Fault.

In practical terms, the proposed Center should be a fully developed three-dimensional building or landscape project, no matter how speculative or straight-forward its underlying premise might be, whether it is simply a museum of the fault or something more provocative, such as a partially underground public test-facility for generating artificial earthquakes. In all cases—circulation, materials, program, site—students must demonstrate thorough knowledge of their own project in the form of, but not limited to, the appropriate use of plans, sections, elevations, axonometrics, physical models, and 3D diagrams.

[Images: (left) Harry Partch, two instruments, 1940s/1950s. (right) Doug Aitken’s “Sonic Pavilion” (2009), courtesy of the Doug Aitken Workshop].

To help develop ideas for the Seismic Interpretive Center, we will look at such precedents as artist Doug Aitken’s “Sonic Pavilion” in Brazil, where, in the words of The New York Times, Aitken “buried microphones sensitive to vibrations caused by the rotation of the planet,” or the artist’s own house in Venice, California, where, again quoting The New York Times, “geological microphones… amplify not just the groan of tectonic plate movements but also the roar of the tides and the rumble of street traffic. Guests can listen in on this subterranean world without putting an ear to the ground. Speakers installed throughout the house bring its metronomic clicks and extended drones to them whenever Aitken turns up the volume.”

More abstractly, students could perhaps think of the Center as a variation on “Solomon’s House,” a proto-scientific research facility featured in Sir Francis Bacon’s 17th-century utopian sci-fi novel The New Atlantis. In Solomon’s House, natural philosophers operate vast, artificial landscapes and complex machines—rivaling anything we read about in Dubai or China today—to examine the world in fantastic detail. Bacon offers a lengthy inventory of the devices available for use: “We have… great and spacious houses where we imitate and demonstrate meteors… We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation… We have also engine-houses, where are prepared engines and instruments for all sorts of motions… We have also a mathematical house, where are represented all instruments, as well of geometry as astronomy, exquisitely made…”

The larger San Andreas Fault National Park proposal within which this Interpretive Center will sit must include all aspects of an existing park in the National Park Service network of managed sites; however, students must push the National Park typology in new directions, taking seriously the prospect of preserving and framing a landscape that moves.

[Images: (left top) AllesWirdGut Architektur, a Roman quarry in St. Margarethen, Austria, converted into public venue, park, and auditorium, 2006-2008. In a private email, responding to the image seen on the left, landscape blogger Alexander Trevi from Pruned suggested that perhaps it would be more interesting for us to think of the San Andreas Fault not in terms of a detached viewer—like the so-called Rückenfiguren (or figures seen from behind) in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich—but, as Trevi suggested, more like dancer Fred Astaire, physically and whimsically engaging in a choreographed state of delight with the Earth’s shifting topography. (left bottom) “Ice Age Deposits of Wisconsin” (1964) and a photo, taken from Flickr, of an Ice Age National Scenic Trail marker (2007). (right top) National Tourist Route Geiranger-Trollstigen, Norway. Architect: Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter. Photo: Per Kollstad. (right bottom, left to right, top to bottom, within grid) National Tourist Route Rondane. Architect: Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk. Photo: Vegar Moen. National Tourist Route Geiranger-Trollstigen, Norway. Architect: Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter. Photo: Jarle Wæhler. National Tourist Route Aurlandsfjellet. Architect: Todd Saunders / Saunders-Wilhelmsen. Photo: Vegar Moen. National Tourist Route Ryfylke. Architect: Haga Grov / Helge Schjelderup. Photo: Per Kollstad. Courtesy of National Tourist Routes in Norway].

This means students must propose a working combination of such features as trails, lodging, visitors’ centers, educational programming, parking/camping, and other facilities that differentiate National Parks from their less developed counterparts, National Monuments, but with the addition of new types of structures and innovative landscape management techniques that might reveal future opportunities for the U.S. National Park system.

Here, we will look at a variety of precedents, including current plans for a “Manhattan Project National Park” (a National Park that will preserve three geographically diverse sites key to the development of nuclear weapons during World War II); a proposal by photographer Richard Misrach for a “Bravo 20 National Park” (a former U.S. Navy bombing range that would be preserved as a recreational landscape); the High Line here in New York City; an entirely underwater National Park Service “Maritime Heritage Trail” in Biscayne Bay, Florida; the extraordinary, multi-sensory “Taichung Gateway Park” proposal by landscape architects Catherine Mosbach and Philippe Rahm; the “Ice Age National Scenic Trail” in Wisconsin; and, of course, a handful of already existing state parks and recreation areas in California—such as the Los Trancos Open Space Preserve and the 206,000-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument—that feature hiking trails and other recreational facilities that cross the San Andreas Fault.

The “Ice Age National Scenic Trail” is what we might call a planetary interpretive trail: “More than 12,000 years ago,” we read, “an immense flow of glacial ice sculpted a landscape of remarkable beauty across Wisconsin. As the colossal glacier retreated, it left behind a variety of unique landscape features… The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a thousand-mile footpath—entirely within Wisconsin—that highlights these Ice Age landscape features while providing access to some of the state’s most beautiful natural areas.”

However, no less useful in this context are the “National Tourist Routes” that now criss-cross the geologically rich landscapes of Norway. In essence, these are new scenic routes for automobiles constructed through extraordinary natural landscapes, including coastal fjords and precipitous mountain valleys; however, these routes have also been peppered with signature architectural interventions, including lookout towers, roadside picnic areas, trail infrastructure, geological overlooks, and more.

But how do we define—let alone locate—a park on the scale of a fault line? Landscape architect James Corner suggests that the virtue of a “large park”—which he defines as a park “greater than 500 acres”—is that it “allows for dramatic exposure to the elements, to weather, geology, open horizons, and thick vegetation, all revealed to the ambulant body in alternating sequences of prospect and refuge—distinctive places for overview and survey woven with more intimate spots of retreat and isolation.” He calls such parks “huge experiential reserves”—in terms of the San Andreas, we might say a kind of seismic commons.

Further, thinking about—let alone designing—architecture on this scale requires close attention to what landscape theorist Julia Czerniak calls legibility. “The concept of legibility,” she writes in her edited collection Large Parks, “extends from park design to the design process. In other words, to be realized, parks have to be legible to the people who pay for and use them.” After all, she adds, “in addition to questions of a park’s legibility that stem from recognizing its limits—‘where is the park?’—large park schemes with unconventional configurations provoke other uncertainties—‘how does it look?’ and ‘what can it do?’”

[Images: (left) One of only a few sites where the San Andreas Fault is designated with road signs; photographs by Geoff Manaugh. (right) Satellite view of the San Andreas Fault, rotated 90º (north is to the right)].

Complicating matters even more, we will also examine how National Park infrastructure—from interpretive trails to hotels and viewing platforms—function as immersive projects of landscape representation, even above, and possibly rather than, places of embodied physical experience. In other words, as Richard Grusin reminds us in his book Culture, Technology, and the Creation of America’s National Parks, “just as Yellowstone and Yosemite were created as national parks in accordance with late-nineteenth-century assumptions about landscape and representation, so a national park today (whether scenic or historic) must be created according to present-day assumptions about media, culture, and technology.” Indeed, he adds, “national parks have functioned from their inception as technologies for reproducing nature according to the scientific, cultural, and aesthetic practices of a particular historical moment—the period roughly between the Civil War and the end of the First World War.” How, then, would a 21st-century San Andreas Fault National park both represent and preserve the landscape in question?

To help us sort through these many complex questions, and to ease our transition from thinking and designing at the scale of a device or building to the scale of an entire landscape, we will be joined for one class by GSAPP’s Kate Orff, a landscape architect and co-editor of Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park. Her experience with Gateway will be invaluable for all of us in conceptualizing what a San Andreas Fault National Park might be.

Finally, students must spend the last week of the semester, leading up to our final day of class on Wednesday, April 24, revisiting and refining all of their work produced over the term and, in the process, collecting all of their relevant project documentation. This project documentation will then be collected and published as a small black & white pamphlet, forming a kind of speculative architectural guide to the San Andreas Fault.

In addition to any boards and models necessary for explaining the resulting proposals, this black & white pamphlet will be produced in small quantities for guest critics and other attendees of our final review. It will also be made available to attendees of the GSAPP Year-End Show. Specific requirements—including number of images and length of accompanying descriptive texts—will be discussed during the semester. 

One of the main inspirations for this course is architect Lebbeus Woods, who passed away during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. In order both to honor Woods’s extraordinary influence but also to demonstrate the breadth of ideas and themes available to us as we explore the architectural implications of seismic energy, this syllabus will end with a few examples of Woods’s work that will serve as points of reference throughout the term.

[Images: (left top and bottom) Lebbeus Woods, from Underground Berlin (1988). From deep inside the Earth, Woods writes, “come seismic forces that move the inverted towers and bridges in equally subtle vibrations.” (right) Lebbeus Woods, two seismically “completed” houses from his San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake, Quake City (1995)].

In his 1989 book OneFiveFour, Woods describes a city all but defined by the seismic events surging through the Earth below it. It is a city ornamented on nearly every surface by “oscilloscopes, refractors, seismometers, interferometers, and other, as yet unknown instruments, measuring light, movement, force, change.”

In this city of instruments—this city as instrument—“tools for extending perceptivity to all scales of nature are built spontaneously, playfully, experimentally, continuously modified in home laboratories, in laboratories that are homes,” exploring the moving surface of an Earth in flux.

Woods imagines even the towers and bridges acting in geomechanical synchrony, riding out the shocks and resonance from the volatile geology below: “Like musical instruments, they vibrate and shift in diverse frequencies, in resonance with the Earth and also with one another… Indeed, each object—chair, table, cloth, examining apparatus, structure—is an instrument; each material thing connects the inhabitants with events in the world around him and within himself.”

In a closely related project—an unproduced film treatment called Underground Berlin, also documented in the book OneFiveFour—Woods describes the discovery of a fictional network of government seismic labs operating beneath the surface of Berlin, a distributed facility known as the Underground Research Station.

Woods explains as part of this scenario that, deep inside the Station, “many scientists and technicians are working on a project for the government to analyze and harness the tremendous, limitless geological forces active in the earth… a world of seismic wind and electromagnetic flux.” They are pursuing nothing less than “a mastery”—that is, a sustained weaponization—of these “primordial earth forces.”

The film’s protagonist thus descends into the city by way of tunnels and seemingly upside-down buildings—“inverted geomechanical towers,” in his words—inside of which dangerous seismic experiments are already underway.

Elsewhere, describing the origin of his so-called San Francisco Project, partially inspired by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California, Woods asked: “What is an architecture that accepts earthquakes, resonating with their matrix of seismic waves—an architecture that needs earthquakes, and is constructed, transformed, or completed by their effects—an architecture that uses earthquakes, converting to a human purpose the energies they release, or the topographical transformations they bring about—an architecture that causes earthquakes, triggering microquakes in order that ‘the big one’ is defused—an architecture that inhabits earthquakes, existing in their space and time?”

[Image: A map in four sections (see below three images) shows the San Andreas Fault stretching from northern to southern California. The San Andreas “is just one of several faults that make up a complex of potential catastrophes,” paleontologist Richard Fortey writes in Earth: An Intimate History. It is “the flagship of a fleet of faults that run close to the western edge of North America… In places, maps of the interweaving faults look more like a braided mesh than the single, deep cut of our imagination.” Here, we see the San Andreas come to an end in Northern California at the so-called Mendocino Triple Junction. Maps courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, from The San Andreas Fault System, U.S.G.S. Professional Paper 1515 (PDF); see original paper for higher resolution].

Readings & References

Online (Required Reading)

USGS Earthquake Hazards Program:
earthquake.usgs.gov

The San Andreas Fault System, U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1515:
pubs.usgs.gov/pp/1990/1515/pp1515.pdf

The San Andreas Fault:
pubs.usgs.gov/gip/earthq3/contents.html

“San Andreas System and Basin and Range,” from Active Faults of the World by Robert Yeats (Cambridge University Press):
dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139035644.004

Where’s the San Andreas Fault? A Guidebook to Tracing the Fault on Public Lands in the San Francisco Bay Region:
pubs.usgs.gov/gip/2006/16/gip-16.pdf

Of Mud Pots and the End of the San Andreas Fault:
seismo.berkeley.edu/blog/seismoblog.php/2008/11/04/of-mud-pots-and-the-end-of-the-san-andre

U.S. Geological Survey Fault and Volcano Monitoring Instruments:
earthquake.usgs.gov/monitoring/deformation/data/instruments.php

[Image: Map courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, from The San Andreas Fault System, U.S.G.S. Professional Paper 1515 (PDF)].

Online (Reference Only)

California Integrated Seismic Network and Southern California Seismic Network:
cisn.org | www.scsn.org

California Strong Motion Instrumentation Program:
conservation.ca.gov/cgs/smip/Pages/about.aspx

California Geotour Online Geologic Field Trip:
conservation.ca.gov/cgs/geotour/Pages/Index.aspx

Carrizo Plain National Monument maps and brochures:
blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/bakersfield/Programs/carrizo/brochures_and_maps.html

Ken Goldberg, Mori and Ballet Mori:
memento.ieor.berkeley.edu | goldberg.berkeley.edu/art/Ballet-Mori

Doug Aitken, Sonic Pavilion:
dougaitkenworkshop.com/work/sonic-pavilion

[Image: Map courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, from The San Andreas Fault System, U.S.G.S. Professional Paper 1515 (PDF)].

Offline (Required Reading)

Smout Allen, Pamphlet Architecture 28: Augmented Landscapes (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007)

Ethan Carr, Wilderness by Design: Landscape Architecture and the National Park Service (University of Nebraska Press, 1999) — Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 4

Julia Czerniak and George Hargreaves, eds., Large Parks (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) — Foreword, Introduction, and Chapter Seven

Shin Egashira & David Greene, Alternative Guide to the Isle of Portland (Architectural Association, 1997)

Richard Fortey, Earth: An Intimate History (Vintage, 2004) — Chapter 9: “Fault Lines”

John McPhee, Assembling California (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993)

David L. Ulin, The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith (Penguin, 2004) — “The X-Files,” “A Brief History of Seismology,” and “Earthquake Country” (though entire book is recommended)

Lebbeus Woods, OneFiveFour (Princeton Architectural Press, 1989)

Offline (Reference Only)

Alexander Brash, Jamie Hand, and Kate Orff, eds., Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011)

C. J. Lim, Devices: A Manual of Architectural + Spatial Machines (Elsevier/Architectural Press, 2006)

Lebbeus Woods, Radical Reconstruction (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001) — “Radical Reconstruction” (pp. 13-31) and “San Francisco” (p. 133-155)

[Image: Map courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, from The San Andreas Fault System, U.S.G.S. Professional Paper 1515 (PDF)].

Film and Games (Entertainment Value Only!)

A View To A Kill, dir. John Glen (1985)

Fracture, LucasArts (2008)

Music (Required Listening)

Our work this Spring will be paralleled by a series of musical experiments led by Bay Area sound artist Marc Weidenbaum’s Disquiet Junto, an online music collective. The Disquiet Junto will be developing projects that explore the sonic properties of the San Andreas Fault and uploading the results of these seismic-acoustic experiments to Soundcloud. Students will be required to leave comments on these audio tracks as part of regular homework over the course of the Spring term.

The Disquiet Junto, a satellite operation of disquiet.com, “uses formal restraint as a springboard for creativity. In 2012, the year it launched, the Disquiet Junto produced over 1,600 tracks by over 270 musicians from around the world. Disquiet.com has operated at the intersection of sound, art, and technology since 1996.”

[Image: (left) A Rückenfigur looks at a highway cut through the San Andreas Fault in Palmdale, southern California; photograph by Nicola Twilley. (right) Aerial rendering of the San Andreas Fault, courtesy of NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (2000). If an earthquake presents us with a turbulent condition similar to waves in the ocean or a storm at sea, is the ship a more appropriate structural metaphor than the building—even if it’s an ocean that only exists for sixty seconds? What does orientation mean for the minute-long intensity of an earthquake—the becoming-ocean of land—and how do we learn to navigate a planet that acts like the sea?].

Landscape Futures Super-Trip

I’m heading off soon on a road trip with Nicola Twilley, from Edible Geography, to visit some incredible sites (and sights) around the desert southwest, visiting places where architecture, astronomy, and the planetary sciences, to varying degrees, overlap.

[Image: The Very Large Array].

This will be an amazing trip! Our stops include the “world’s largest collection of optical telescopes,” including the great hypotenuse of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, outside Tucson; the Very Large Array in west-central New Mexico; the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona, aka the “lunar greenhouse,” where “researchers are demonstrating that plants from Earth could be grown without soil on the moon or Mars, setting the table for astronauts who would find potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables awaiting their arrival”; the surreal encrustations of the Salton Sea, a site that, in the words of Kim Stringfellow, “provides an excellent example of the the growing overlap of humanmade and natural environments, and as such highlights the complex issues facing the management of ecosystems today”; the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, with its automated scanning systems used for “robotic searches for variable stars and exoplanets” in the night sky, and its gamma-ray reflectors and “blazar lightcurves” flashing nearby; the Grand Canyon; Red Rocks, outside Sedona; the hermetic interiorities of Biosphere 2; White Sands National Monument and the Trinity Site marker, with its so-called bomb glass; the giant aircraft “boneyard” at the Pima Air & Space Museum; and, last but not least, the unbelievably fascinating Lunar Laser-ranging Experiment at Apache Point, New Mexico, where they shoot lasers at prismatic retroreflectors on the moon, testing theories of gravitation, arriving there by way of the nearby Dunn Solar Telescope.

[Image: The “Electric Aurora,” from Specimens of Unnatural History, by Liam Young].

The ulterior motive behind the trip—a kind of text-based, desert variation on Christian Houge’s study of instrumentation complexes in the Arctic—is to finish up my curator’s essay for the forthcoming Landscape Futures book.

That book documents a forthcoming exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art called Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions, featuring work by David Benjamin & Soo-in Yang (The Living), Mark Smout & Laura Allen (Smout Allen), David Gissen, Mason White & Lola Sheppard (Lateral Office), Chris Woebken, and Liam Young.

Finally, Nicola and I will fall out of the car in a state of semi-delirium in La Jolla, California, where I’ll be presenting at a 2-day symposium on Designing Geopolitics, “an interdisciplinary symposium on computational jurisdictions, emergent governance, public ecologies,” organized by Benjamin Bratton, Daniel Rehn, and Tara Zepel.

That will be free and open to the public, for anyone in the San Diego area who might want to stop by, and it will also be streamed online in its entirety; the full schedule is available at the Designing Geopolitics site.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Landscape Futures Super-Workshop, Landscape Futures Super-Dialogue, and Landscape Futures Super-Media).

Infrastructural Opportunism

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Going all the way back to the fall of 1997, my own interest in architecture was more or less reinvigorated—leading, by way of a long chain of future events, to the eventual start of BLDGBLOG—by Mary-Ann Ray’s installment in the great Pamphlet Architecture series, Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets.

To this day, the pamphlet format—short books, easily carried around town, packed with spatial ideas and constructive speculations—remains inspiring.

The 30th installment in this canonical series is thankfully a great one, authored by Lateral Office and InfraNet Lab, a design firm and its attendant research blog that I’ve been following for many years.

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

The premise of the work documented by their book, Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism, is to seek out moments in which architecturally dormant landscapes, from the Arctic Circle to the Salton Sea, can be activated by infrastructure and/or spatially reused. Their work is thus “opportunistic,” as the pamphlet’s title implies. It is architecture at the scale of infrastructure, and infrastructure at the scale of hemispheres and ecosystems—the becoming-continental of the architecture brief.

In the process, their proposed interventions are meant to augment processes already active in the terrain in question—processes that remain underutilized or, rather, below the threshold of spatial detection.

As the authors themselves describe it, these projects “double as landscape life support, creating new sites for production and recreation. The ambition is to supplement ecologies at risk rather than overhaul them.”

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

One of the highlights of the book for me is a section on the so-called “Next North.” Here, they offer “a series of proposals centered on the ecological and social empowerment of Canada’s unique Far North and its attendant networks.”

Throughout the twentieth century, the Canadian North had a sordid and unfortunate history of colonial enterprises, political maneuverings, and non-integrated development proposals that perpetuated sovereign control and economic development. Northern developments are intimately tied to the construction of infrastructure, though these projects are rarely conceived with a long-term, holistic vision. How might future infrastructures participate in cultivating and perpetuating ecosystems and local cultures, rather than threatening them? How might Arctic settlements respond more directly to the exigencies of this transforming climate and geography, and its ever-increasing pressures from the South? What is next for the North?

Three specific projects follow. One outlines the technical possibility of building “Ice Road Truck Stops.” These would use “intersecting meshes,” almost as a kind of cryotechnical rebar, inserted into the frozen surfaces of Arctic lakes to “address road reinforcement, energy capture, and aquatic ecologies.”

The mesh is installed at critical shorelines just below the water’s surface, serving to reinforce ice roads during the winter and invigorate lake ecologies during warmer seasons. As trucks travel over the ice road, a hydrodynamic wave forms below the ice, which the mesh captures and converts to energy through a proposed buoy network.

There is then a series of “Caribou Pivot Stations”—further proof that cross-species design is gathering strength in today’s zeitgeist—helping caribou to forage for food on their seasonal migrations; and a so-called “Liquid Commons,” which is a “malleable educational infrastructure composed of a series of boats that travel between the harbors of eleven adjacent communities.” It is a mobile, nomadic network bringing tax-funded educational opportunities to the residents of this emerging Next North.

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Here, I should point out that the book has an air of earnestness—everything is very serious and technical and not to be laughed at—but the projects themselves often belie this attitude. It’s as if the authors are aware of, and even revel in, the speculative nature of their ideas, but seem somehow rhetorically unwilling to give away the game. But the implication that these projects are eminently buildable—shovel-ready projects just waiting for a financial green light to do things like “cultivate” ice in the Bering Strait (duly illustrated with a Photoshopped walrus) or “harvest” water from the Salton Sea—is a large part of what makes the book such an enjoyable read.

After all, does presenting speculative work as if it could happen tomorrow—as if it is anything but speculative—increase its architectural value? Or should such work always hold itself at an arm’s length from realizability, so as to highlight its provocative or polemical tone?

The projects featured in Coupling have an almost tongue-in-cheek buildability to them—such as recreational climbing walls on abandoned oil platforms in the Caspian Sea. This opens a whole slew of important questions about what rhetorical mode—what strategy of self-presentation—is most useful and appropriate for upstart architectural firms. (At the very least, this would make for a fascinating future discussion).

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

In any case, the book is loaded with diagrams, as you can see from the selections reproduced here, including a volumetric study (above) that runs through various courtyard typologies for a hypothetical mixed-use project in Iceland. For more on that particular work, see this older, heavily-illustrated BLDGBLOG post.

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Essays by David Gissen, Keller Easterling, Charles Waldheim, and Christopher Hight round out the book’s content. It’s a solid pamphlet, both practical and imaginative—made even more provocative by its implied feasibility—and a fantastic choice for the 30th edition of this long-running series.

Expedition to the Geoglyphs of Nowhere


BLDGBLOG and Atlas Obscura have teamed up to lead an outing into the deserts of southern California on Saturday, March 20: an afternoon-long photographic expedition through the dusty grids of unpaved streets on the northeastern fringe of California City.


To quote from an earlier post here on BLDGBLOG:

In the desert 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles is a suburb abandoned in advance of itself—the unfinished extension of a place called California City. Visible from above now are a series of badly paved streets carved into the dust and gravel, like some peculiarly American response to the Nazca Lines (or even the labyrinth at Chartres cathedral). Bill & Ted meet Cerne Abbas Man.

The uninhabited street plan has become an abstract geoglyph—unintentional land art visible from airplanes—not a thriving community at all.


Take a look.

On Google Street View, distant structures like McMansions can be made out here and there amidst the ghost-grid, mirages of suburbia in the middle of nowhere. Meaningless STOP signs stand guard over dead intersections.


And it’s a weird geography: two of the most prominent nearby landmarks include a prison and an automobile test-driving facility run by Honda. There is also a visually spectacular boron mine to the southeast—it’s the largest open-pit mine in California, according to the Center for Land Use Interpretation—and an Air Force base.


To make things more surreal, in an attempt to boost its economic fortunes, California City hired actor Erik Estrada, of CHiPs fame, to act as the town’s media spokesperson.

The history of the town itself is of a failed Californian utopia—in fact, incredibly, if completed, it was intended to rival Los Angeles. From the city’s Wikipedia entry:

California City had its origins in 1958 when real estate developer and sociology professor Nat Mendelsohn purchased 80,000 acres (320 km2) of Mojave Desert land with the aim of master-planning California’s next great city. He designed his model city, which he hoped would one day rival Los Angeles in size, around a Central Park with a 26-acre (11 ha) artificial lake. Growth did not happen anywhere close to what he expected. To this day a vast grid of crumbling paved roads, scarring vast stretches of the Mojave desert, intended to lay out residential blocks, extends well beyond the developed area of the city. A single look at satellite photos shows the extent of the scarred desert and how it stakes its claim to being California’s 3rd largest geographic city, 34th largest in the US. California City was incorporated in 1965.

California City is now the site of a proposed mega-farm for solar energy harvesting, as well as for a bizarre plan to build the so-called Cannabis City of the Future.

Sign up to join us over at the Obscura Day site.


Note, however, that this is not a guided tour; it is simply an organized simultaneity of people all going out to investigate these streets en masse. Armed with cameras, microphones, sketchbooks, GPS devices, quickly scrawled notes for future blog posts, and more, we’ll be exploring the site at our own pace, perhaps even miles apart at various times. This is not a guided tour with an expert on the area.

As such, all questions of transportation (including tires suitable for travel over unsealed dirt roads); adequate food, fuel, and water; personal safety (including protection from sprained ankles and snakes); and navigation are up to individual participants.

We will meet at 1pm on Saturday, March 20, 2010, in the parking lot of Rite Aid in California City: 9482 California City Boulevard, California City, CA 93505. There will be a very brief group introduction there—and you can run inside to buy Cokes or whatever—before we set off to document the uninhabited streets outside town. Let’s photograph, film, blog, Lomo, Twitter, and audio-record the crap out of this place! I’ve started a Flickr group, which will be opened up soon. If you arrive late, simply head out Randsburg Mojave Road, onto 20 Mule Team Parkway, and look for the cars; our eventual cluster of destinations is approximately 15 minutes’ drive northeast of town.

And, in the unlikely event of torrential rains, I will post travel updates here on BLDGBLOG.


Meanwhile, the incomparable Atlas Obscura has a whole slew of amazing trips planned for March 20, all over the world, all part of their first annual “Obscura Day.” Definitely check out that list for sites closer to you, if you’re not in southern California.

(California City was originally pointed out to me by David Donald, and it was written up by The Vigorous North last year. The “cannabis city” and solar farm links come courtesy of Alexis Madrigal. All images in this post via Google Maps and Google Street View).